Customs Brokerage and Freight Forwarding – How A Fulfillment Center Can Help

Customs Brokerage and Freight ForwardingIf you are engaged in e-commerce, it is likely that you are eager to find ways to cut down on costs as well as the amount of time you have to dedicate to issues like packing and shipping. In fact, an enormous number of e-commerce businesses prefer to “outsource” this step, and it is often done through a “fulfillment center”. Yet, you still have to get your products to the fulfillment center, and the process of shipping products from the manufacturer to the fulfillment house is far more complicated when your products are made overseas. That is often where Freight Forwarding enters the equation.

Freight Forwarding Defined

Often, e-commerce involves sales of materials imported from abroad. Acquiring merchandise at deep discounts usually means looking overseas for much less expensive suppliers, but then it means handling the whole import process, and this requires developing a few unique business relationships.

First, you may have to work closely with a customs broker or brokerage who is an “agent of the importer”. Customs brokers are frequently the importer’s only point of contact with the U.S. Customs Service and advises on the technical requirements of importing, preparing and filing entry documents, obtaining the necessary bonds, depositing U.S. import duties, securing release of the goods and arranging delivery to the importer’s premises or warehouse.

Freight forwarders focus on coordinating shipping and customs clearance services from the overseas manufacturer to the local warehouse. Typically, they don’t do the actual shipping but instead have relationships with any number of carriers. Freight forwarders usually leverage their pre-existing relationships with shipping carriers, such as air freight, rail freight ocean freight and truck freight, so that they can deliver the best pricing for their clients.

Furthermore, freight forwarding companies typically don’t offer storage and shipping services once the product arrives locally, although there are a few that do. For those companies looking to bring product from overseas and who utilize an outsourced fulfillment service, it’s important to choose the best option for managing these related but specialized services. Clearly, fulfillment services are far different than Freight Forwarding services, but you may wonder if fulfillment companies offer freight forwarding. There is no single answer. Should your company utilize separate companies for each step? Are there companies that perform both services underneath one roof? If you utilize one company, what things should you look for in making the best decision? Below, we’ll explore the answers to these questions so that you can make the best decision for importing and distributing your products.

What Happens if You Choose a Fulfillment Company That Doesn’t Offer Freight Forwarding?

Some fulfillment companies do not offer freight forwarding services because (as you can see) it can be complicated and even labor intensive. In that case, you would need to hire a separate freight forwarding service. That is not, necessarily a bad thing. On the upside, you get to enjoy the benefits of the expertise of both firms, and as one focuses on brining product in from overseas, and the other on storing and shipping upon arrival, it can mean substantial savings. On the downside, it means two relationships to manage and high prices if you are not a bulk importer.

In this case, you can choose the best freight forwarding company based upon research and/or recommendations from others. While you won’t necessarily receive bulk discounts unless you have a large volume of import shipments, you can choose the company that you’re most comfortable with and you can certainly use the bidding process to leverage a better overall rate. If you don’t have any referral sources, you can either research companies individually or through the use of an online quoting service. Nonetheless, be sure to pay attention to these points:

  • Make sure you’re comparing “apples to apples” on your quotes, especially with regard to origin and destination terms of the agreement. Some companies will offer port to door (meaning that it doesn’t include freight from the factory to port of origin), some companies will offer door to door (from factory to warehouse), etc. Make sure you include all costs on each proposal to make the best decision.
  • Make sure each quote includes ALL fees. Similar to door to door versus other methods of quoting, freight forwarding companies may not include all fees on their proposal. Some important fees to look out for are customs fees, demurrage fees, insurance fees, courier and documentation fees, overweight container fees, and many others. Especially if this is your first international shipment, take your time to ask questions of any fees that you don’t understand so that you don’t get surprises when your final bill is received.
  • Make sure you check into the track record of the freight forwarder. To the extent possible, be sure to check into the financial and professional background of any potential international shipper. Have others been happy with the service? Your product is far too important to use an unreliable company just because they quoted the best rate.

Some Fulfillment Companies Have Freight Forwarding Referrals

Of course, some fulfillment houses, such as Fulfyld, create partnerships with a freight forwarding firm that they recommend if you are importing or exporting as part of your e-commerce work for managing import transportation. Again, there are pros and cons to consider. The upside is that you have a more streamlined approach, and if you encounter problems, you can contact the fulfillment center as well as the freight forwarder. Both have reputations at stake. Of course, you may not get the best pricing because one might earn a referral bonus or commission off the other. You also need to double check references. Though you might like the fulfillment center, it does not mean their preferred freight forwarder is all you need or the best fit. Again, you also have two separate relationships, but there is a connectedness that is of benefit to you.

Is an All-In-One Solution the Best for Your Company?

Lastly, there are some fulfillment centers that actually have “divisions” operating as freight forwarding firms. This means a single relationship with a range of departments or experts that offer the individualized services. The downside to such opportunities is that they are usually much larger companies if they can afford to have a completely separate freight forwarding and international shipping division. This means, of course, that they may only focus on larger volume accounts with larger companies. While this isn’t always the case, it may present challenges for smaller shippers and e-commerce companies.

So, a fulfillment center can help with customs brokering and freight forwarding, but it pays to find out what the overall pros and cons are of the different approaches. Before you make a decision on your import solution, consider the various relationships that are involved. Take the time to find your freight forwarding, customs brokering and fulfillment center providers to be clear about all of the costs, logistics and demands involved in your ecommerce enterprise.

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